By Rinzen Gonzales

Flocks of tourists hail from different parts of the archipelago just to see the natural beauty of Barangay Kalawakan. But for Tessie Evangelista, the lush emerald forests surrounding the community named after the universe were once devoid of color.

Gray ash and soot littered the land and air when Evangelista was growing up. The residents used to cut and burn trees for charcoal just to make a living. This memory hides amongst the towering trees of Kalawakan today.

Barangay Kalawakan is located in the Municipality of Doña Remedios Trinidad (DRT), Bulacan Province’s last frontier that comprises about a third of the province’s land area. The town is no stranger to charcoal making.

Back then, the 93,000 hectares of land was underdeveloped with little to no infrastructure and highways leading to adjacent towns which pushed the locals into an industry that kills trees for profit.

“Talagang sobrang hirap na,” Tessie said. “‘Pag nag-uling ka, pahid-pahiran ka talaga pero liit. Halos ang mga bata nga hindi na maibili ng kasuotan.” (It was difficult to make ends meet. Even if you make charcoal, we still make less. We could not even buy clothes for the children.)

To carry out their livelihood, families who made charcoal for a living need certification from the Department of Environment of Natural Resources (DENR)or they can harvest trees from their own lands.

However, this was still not enough for them to make ends meet.

Reviving Nature

The municipal government of DRT has taken initiatives to turn the town inhabited by 20,000 people into a paradise in the mountains. Under the current administration, tourism in the province boomed with travelers from the neighboring towns and provinces frequently visiting its wonders.

Barangay Kalawakan sits right in the center of these natural wonders.

Sites like the Talumpari Falls, Camalig Cave, Tila Pilon and Balistada Hills, and Mt. Pinagbanderahan, are spots often explored by tourists.

Eric Hernandez, a barangay kagawad (barangay councilor), said the opening of many tourism destinations gave the residents a new source of income by becoming tour guides.Hernandez said that the tour guides earn at an average of ₱500 in one tour.

Evangelista shares “kaya po kung mag-asawa kayo, ₱1,000 po agad ang kita. Bakit pa po kayo mag-uuling.” She describes how being a tour guide pays better wages than that of charcoal production. (…if you are spouses working together, you could instantly earn  ₱1,000. Why should we even make charcoal?)

Since tourism boomed in their barangay, families are able to afford to send their children to school without worrying about the finances education brings, she added.

Financial security even amidst the pandemic is not a burden for the residents, especially the tour guides, for tourists flock the barangay nonstop while observing mandatory health guidelines and regulations. Children whose parents are working in the tourism industry can still work and are provided with basic necessities.

Indeed, tourism saved the people of Kalawakan. But with the increasing popularity among vacationers, the community needs a tighter grip on their environmental security.

Looming threats in the paradise

Pollution has always been a problem and tour guides are responsible for picking up after the rule-breakers.

“Napakarami po naming mga tourist spots ngayon. Iba-iba po ang mga ugali ng turista at ang iba po ay mga pasaway,” said Hernandez. (There are a lot of tourists nowaday. Each of them have different tendencies, and some of them are obstinate.)

The community takes waste management seriously and littering poses serious threats in the environment, he said.

However, garbage is not the only problem in DRT. Just recently, five suspected illegal loggers were arrested in a joint operation by the local police, DENR Community Environment and Natural Resources Office-Baliwag and NPC-Awat in the neighboring barangay of Camachin.

Furthermore, climate change is a looming problem that can potentially impact the community. That is why they have taken steps to ensure the biodiversity is well taken care of.

In collaboration with the municipal government, scholarship beneficiaries of the “Iskolar ng Bayan Program” are required to plant 10 native trees as part of their project to conserve the environment. Tour guides are also planning to plant one tree every journey through the hills to mitigate deforestation in the 33,000-hectare forest reserves.

“Sinasabi rin po namin sa mga kabarangay namin na ganito ang gawin upang hindi maubos ang mga puno natin,” said Evangelista. (The community members are made aware and are involved in these efforts to prevent deforestation.)

The leaders in Kalawakan know that their secluded town behind the virgin slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range is doing better than before. With limited resources and manpower, their community transitioned into a tourism destination for travelers–a universe where locals are battling the challenges of sustainable tourism while mitigating the immediate effects of climate change.

With the facelift of her hometown, Evangelista is one of the only people who witnessed how an almost barren land transformed into a sanctuary.

As tourists head to the groves of Kalawakan, maybe you will meet people like Tessie who knows the secrets of an unexplored universe hidden behind the emerald mountains and the rich history of its people.*

This article was written and prepared by Rinzen Gonzales (Student-Journalist) and Allan Jason Sarmiento (School Paper Adviser) from,San Miguel National High School Division of Bulacan as a final output of DepEd-DRRMS and AYEJ.org’s Green Beat Initiative: An Online Environmental Journalism Training.